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Tall boys sparkle in later summer

By By Gail Barton /horticulture columnist
Aug. 17, 2003
Since I first began growing perennials, I've had a soft spot in my heart for those tall and sturdy.
My romance with "tall boys" began the day I first matched a name with the hairy sunflower that is indigenous on our property. Before that time it had been an anonymous yellow daisy that I passed on a daily basis and sometimes got after with the weed eater.
After I identified it, somehow the plant seemed to have more value and so I observed it more closely. As it grew taller, I found myself looking up to admire the lemon yellow flowers. Soon my 6-foot husband was looking up as well. The following year, I started watching when the spears poked out of the ground in March. The young shoots seemed to sit forever about knee high before beginning their skyward surge.
The hairy sunflower (Helianthus tomentosus) is common around the Meridian area. However, it is rarely used as a garden plant. In fact, Richard and I concocted the common name when we were unable to find one in any of our reference books. We named Hairy for his sandpapery leaves. The large dark green leaves are the perfect foil for the multitudes of lemon yellow blooms.
Most of the tall boys don't even think about flowering until summer's end. The hairy sunflower is an exception. He bears perfect miniature sunflowers from June into autumn. Our largest and most stately clump grows on a slope overlooking the bottom in full sun. However Hairy has surprised us by volunteering and thriving in dry shade as well. Right now you'll find Hairy at home on most of the county roadsides blooming away despite the drought.
Joe Pye (Eupatorium fistulosum) is another attractive foliage plant with large rough textured leaves. A couple of weeks ago Joe Pye began producing tight pink heads of buds that remind me of broccoli. Right now, the buds are opening into lavender pink fluffy mounds.
I first saw Joe Pye in the roadside ditches where he thrives in moisture retentive soils. I've since seem him fraternizing with fancy plants in more sophisticated settings. Joe Pye used to be quite common on the Lauderdale County roadsides. Now I consider him to be almost rare. Apparently, unlike Hairy the sunflower, he is not very resistant to herbicide.
You'll have to leave the roadsides and venture into garden settings to find Formosa or Phillipine lily (Lilium formosanum phillipinenseis). This tall lovely lily hails from Asia. It has naturalized and seeded all around in the MCC Fragrance Garden.
In winter, evergreen foliage similar to Liriope covers the ground. During the next month, fragrant white trumpets that remind me of Easter lilies materialize on 6-foot stalks. They always seem to be welcoming the students back to school.
The searing late summer heat and humidity sometimes makes me feel as if I'll melt. During those weeks when I'm most likely to go crazy with the heat, my tall boy chorus line is a welcome distraction. I know that I can count on Hairy, the sunflower, to bloom in harmony with Joe Pye weed and Formosa lily. They signal to me that autumn is on the way. I appreciate their efforts. If those guys can make it through the dog days of summer under a burden of blossoms, maybe I can keep on keeping on too.

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